A century has elapsed since the world began observing the international women’s day every year on 8th March. In different regions, the focus of the day ranges from general celebration of respect, appreciation, and love towards women to a celebration for women's economic, political, and social achievements. However, in a typical developing country like Malawi where the majority of women are engaged in smallholder farming the question is; have things changed for the better for Malawian female farmers to celebrate the day?
A report by Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO Women and Population Division, 2007), indicates that women in Sub-Sahara African countries constitute 70% of the agricultural workers and provide 60-80% of the labour to produce food for sale and household consumption. Women are also responsible for 100% of the processing of basic foodstuffs; 80% of food storage and transport from field to village; 90% of the tilling and weeding work; and 60% of the harvesting and marketing activities. The data indicates that female farmers bear more than half of the responsibility for agricultural labour. Yet despite such efforts, women’s agricultural productivity and their access to markets is generally very low.
A 2014 Malawi country report on implementation of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action (1995), agrees with the findings by FAO. The report highlights that in Malawi, women face higher levels of poverty compared to men because there are gender disparities in education, resources, and access to opportunities. Female farmers are more disadvantaged due to reduced access to productive assets, rights to land and support services, resulting in female-headed households tending to be poorer in general than male-headed households.
It is with such realisation that NASFAM embarked on a number of activities aimed at uplifting the status of female farmers through livelihood improvement programmes such as adult literacy, seed system development and market access.
Through its adult functional literacy and basic business skills programmes, NASFAM addresses illiteracy challenges among its members. Illiteracy is a national problem that is more prevalent in rural areas and is impacting greatly on social and economic productivity of smallholder women farmers. Illiteracy is higher for women (56%) than men according to a 2004 Data for rural literacy - by National Statistics Office of Malawi, which combined with lack of confidence, prevents women from fully participating in the development of their family, farming business, and community developments.
NASFAM therefore runs a comprehensive training programme, which focuses on literacy, numeracy and basic business skills for its members. The increased confidence that comes from literacy training helps to increase female participation in economic development.
One of the beneficiaries of such initiatives is Jennifer Mamboya from Nkhotakota District. Born in 1963, Jennifer never attended formal education. It was a difficult period for her until 2013 when she registered for adult literacy lessons implemented by NASFAM in the area. Jennifer admitted that life as an illiterate farmer was difficult.
“I could attend farming business trainings but never understood the content. I could not comprehend the required plant spacing let alone drawing a basic business plan for my farming business. These things were difficult to comprehend until I began literacy and numeracy lessons organised by NASFAM,” said Jennifer.
They say “when you educate a woman, you educate a nation”. This became true for Jennifer, and her community. A mother of seven, Jennifer never encouraged her children to go to school. In fact, only one of her children was attending school but the adult literacy programme changed all this. Now, she makes sure all her children attend school.
“The adult literacy training has empowered my life. I am now producing more and am able to negotiate better prices for my produce. It has also become easier to feed, clothe and pay school fees for all my seven children”, added Jennifer.
After completing the adult literacy lessons, something changed in Jennifer’s life. She is now able to reason well and make rational decisions for her family and farming business. She has become productive in her farming business since she can now follow proper agricultural practices and develop a business plan.
With such type of empowerment, it is possible to achieve gender parity where women and men have equal access to productive assets, services, education and decision making for improvement of their livelihood.